Saturday 9th October 2004
Simon & Schuster, £18.99, pp.392
Tom Shone, the ex-film critic of The Sunday Times, is out to pick a fight. The clue is in the subtitle of this book, a surprisingly sympathetic history of Hollywood's most despised school of moviemaking. To the untrained eye, it will simply conjure up Dr Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, but more seasoned observers will spot the resemblance to the subtitle of another book, Seeing Is Believing: Or, How Hollywood Taught Us to Stop Worrying and Love the Fifties by Peter Biskind.
I wouldn't be surprised if this is a deliberate bit of provocation on Shone's part. Six years ago Biskind wrote a book called Easy Riders, Raging Bulls in which he argued that the phenomenal box office success of Jaws and Star Wars, the two films commonly acknowledged to have kick-started the blockbuster era, brought about the end of the most creative period in Hollywood's history, a period beginning with Easy Rider in 1969 and ending, appropriately enough, with Apocalypse Now in 1979. This is hardly an original point of view--indeed, it's been the conventional wisdom among movie buffs for at least 20 years--but because Easy Riders, Raging Bulls was so successful it's become a point of view closely associated with its author.
Blockbuster takes issue with the Biskind Hypothesis. Actually, that's putting it too mildly. Blockbuster flatly contradicts the Biskind Hypothesis. Shone's argument is that Hollywood went through a fallow period in the 1970s, not just financially but creatively as well, and was saved by a generation of filmmakers who spent their formative years immersed in pop culture--Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, Ridley Scott, Robert Zemeckis and James Cameron, to name the most well-known. In Shone's startlingly original view, Jaws and Star Wars weren't just more successful films than Taxi Driver and The Last Picture Show; they were better, too. On balance, he concludes, the Blockbuster era has produced more classic movies than the period often referred to as Hollywood's "Golden Age".
Whether you're convinced by this or not, it's extremely refreshing to find a critic willing to stake out such unfashionable ground and then spend 392 pages defending it. In this respect, Blockbuster has something in common with several other recently-published non-fiction books, such as Empire: How Britain Made the Common World and Six Wives: The Queens of Henry VIII. Unlike Niall Fergusson and David Starkey, though, Shone could never be accused of simply contradicting received opinion for the sake of attracting attention. The strangest thing about Blockbuster is that Shone clearly believes every word he says. He really does think that Robert Zemeckis, the director of Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, is a better filmmaker than Francis Ford Coppola.
Shone is nothing if not diligent in the prosecution of his case. Judging from the wealth of detail about films like Alien and The Terminator, he must have immersed himself in fan magazines, and the book is enriched throughout by actual interviews with all the principal players. God knows how, but he managed to persuade Spielberg and others to talk to him for days on end about their films. After reading this book, George Lucas will probably offer Shone a permanent birth on the Skywalker Ranch as his official biographer-in-residence.
Like all good critics, Shone helps his cause immeasurably by being a gifted writer. His ability to sum up an actor or director in one well-turned phrase is reminiscent of Pauline Kael's. Thus, Sigourney Weaver has "an air of hastily-gathered composure"; Back to the Future is "an exquisite piece of narrative clockwork"; and The Terminator is "a heavy-metal hymn to the textures of chrome and concrete".
As far as I know, no other critic has written a book about blockbusters as a genre--and it's hard to imagine anyone as intelligent and well-educated as Shone ever doing so again. This means he finds himself in the unusual position of having written both the first and last word on the subject. For anyone interested in film, this book is a must read.
© 2004 - 2013 Toby Young